Joe Burrow just might not be crazy about the prospect of playing for the Cincinnati Bengals. Not that I'd blame him.
The franchise hasn't won a playoff game in forever. The organization often acts in unusual ways – some would say it falls prey to antiquated thinking – and lacks the infrastructure of most franchises it competes with. The Bengals have long lacked for scouting and resources and anything approximating the cutting edge of technology. They lack the sort of facilities and training headquarters that most players are used to from playing big-time college football.
When Carson Palmer, whose brother, Jordan, just happens to be training Burrow for the combine, comes out and says he never felt like the Bengals were really trying to win Super Bowls, I'm not sure there is a cogent counterargument. They are run very much like a throwback, a ma and pa shop that is, in every way, shape and form, an old school family business. It's not for everyone.
Owner Mike Brown seems to bask in his periodic clashes with the league and other owners, and while I have long admired his iconoclastic spirit, the reality is this team has been an also-ran for much of my near 46 years on this planet. And when some of the stands Brown makes include basically skipping the entire trade deadline and using stubborn "logic" to vow not to "help" other teams by dealing a bunch of coveted veterans who have almost no chance of being in Cincy if/when this franchise ever does turn it around again, well, if you were Burrow you might have some reservations about this being a year in which the Bengals hold the first-overall pick.
But fear not, Bengals fans. I've got your back. I've got a way out of this mess. Because this Burrow thing, I suspect, is not going away. And the draft is still almost three months away, if you're scoring at home, which is more than enough time for this to become a full-blown soap opera. But there is a way for the Bengals – even with these, let's say, fiscal restraints – to quickly be primed to be among the most talented teams in the league, with a deep core all still on cheap rookie contracts. And there is a way for them to also immediately become among the most intriguing teams in the NFL in the process, and also be infinitely more competitive than they were in 2019, when they flirted with a winless season without even trying or doing anything close to a tank job.
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Okay, follow me here, with the disclaimer that this runs entirely counter to the way the Bengals think and operate. It would require them espousing a vastly different football worldview than they ever have before. Here is my plan to remake the Bengals, and make them must-see TV in the process. (Insert your own leopard changing its spots joke here).
Step One: Trade Andy Dalton
He has no future there. He knows it. We all know it. Of course, it was ridiculous that the week the Bengals finally opted to bench him was literally right at the trade deadline; he should have been long gone before that. With this shaping up as an offseason unlike any other when it comes to quarterback movement/free agency/possible retirement, the Bengals need to act fast here and be proactive. Try to get a second-round pick from the Bears – who recently hired Bill Lazor, who is very close with Dalton from coaching him in Cincy, to run their offense. They have picks 43 and 50 – maybe target 50.
Step Two: Trade for Cam Newton
Newton and Dalton have effectively the same contract. Pay-as-you go, for $19M next season. The Panthers aren't sure what exactly to do with Newton. They're torn. Getting him out of the NFC, if they did opt to move him, would make the most sense If Mike Brown is stuck in enough to actually tag A.J. Green in order to keep him, then go rent Newton for a year. Offer the Panthers three second-round picks. The Bengals already have the first pick of the second round this year, and the first pick of the third round. Maybe you get it done for pick 50 plus those two and something in the future? I don't know, get creative. With Newton's health a thing, getting pick 33 is essentially like a first-round pick. (Heck, maybe the Panthers want maximum draft capital now to go up and try to get Burrow themselves, given his relationship with Panthers new offensive coordinator Joe Brady).
Include a condition that if you re-sign Newton the compensation increases to another pick (don't worry, we aren't re-signing him, and we have a Plan B and Plan C at QB). If Newton is back, and returns to close to MVP form, you can always tag him in 2021 as a precursor to a trade. Even if you let him walk, the Bengals would get a serious comp pick in return. Or you stick with him and work out an extension. Because, trust me, we're not going to be sweating the draft picks we traded for Newton once we get to Step Three …
Step Three: Trade the first overall pick
In this scenario, it's time for the Bengals to do what the Rams did all those many years ago, when they basically auctioned off the second-overall pick for the right to draft RG3. Only a lot has changed since 2012, including teams getting multiple first-round picks for guys like Laremy Tunsil. So what would the right to draft Burrow, who looks like a can't-miss kid, be worth on the open market?
The Skins dealt three first-round picks and a second-round pick to move from sixth overall to second overall to take Robert Griffin back in 2012. I would bet the Bengals could get another second-round pick thrown into the pot for this selection, which more than makes up for what we have going out for Newton. Plus, by the spring of 2021, they might be able to get another first-round pick for Newton. And, this is the rare year where it is already an absolute certainty that there is a QB worthy of the first-overall pick waiting on the other side in the 2020 draft. Trevor Lawrence may very well prove to be an even more sure-first prospect, and the Bengals will be loaded with more draft capital than you could imagine.
Normally, I would never support passing on a potential superstar QB, But 2020 is not a normal year, with guys like Tom Brady and Philip Rivers and Jameis Winston and Newton and Derek Carr and Dalton and Teddy Bridgewater all possibly changing teams, and Drew Brees possibly joining Eli Manning in retirement. Options abound, and Lawrence is still stuck waiting to join the party until 2021.
If ever there was a time to hoard picks and get creative, it's now. And if Brown is worried about looking like he's tanking and losing his fanbase or any other such phobias, acquiring Newton would put that to bed. Regardless, it's time for the Bengals to be aggressive and proactive and get with the times. Even after being conscientious objectors at the trade deadline, that is precisely the avenue or roster building they should be championing now. The combine is right around the corner. Time to get moving, including – if a stare-down with Burrow is possibly looming – that first-overall pick.